RAMON PRESSON: The lost art of driving a stick

RAMON PRESSON: The lost art of driving a stick


Manual transmission. 5-speed.

Did you know that these automotive mainstays for the past century are now disappearing from the American landscape faster than a Pontiac with an installed cassette player from Radio Shack? It’s true.

In 2012 the proportion of new cars with stick shifts sold in the U.S. was only 6.8%. In just six years that small percentage has dropped almost in half to 3.5%. At this rate in a few years it will be easier to find a piece of undeveloped land in Cool Springs than it will be to find a new sports car with a shifter on the floor.

It’s Just Automatic

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the recent news that Audi will stop offering any manual transmission vehicles in the United States beginning with the 2019 models. Yes, it certainly IS time to panic. Sporty cars with a 5-speed manual transmission are going the way of Sears, the Sony Walkman, and Mel Gibson’s career.

Automatic transmissions are now the overwhelming norm. That shouldn’t be surprising when we’ve come to expect everything else to be automatic. If you go to a public restroom nowadays the toilet flush is automatic, and the soap dispenser, water faucet, and hand dryer are automatic.

If we’re on the verge of self-driving cars then we certainly can’t be bothered with the hassle of manually shifting gears. After all, we theoretically need at least one hand on the steering wheel while we are dialing our phone, sipping coffee, eating a bagel, and changing the tune on Spotify with the other hand.

Back in the Old Days

Just imagine if we had to drive one of the original Model T Fords.

Even though the T had only two forward speeds and a reverse, driving the Model T took more hand-foot coordination than playing a pipe organ. Drivers maneuvered three pedals in the floorboard, a lever on the left side of the driver’s seat, and a throttle lever on the steering

My first car was a 1978 Ford Fiesta with a 4-speed manual transmission. The salesman had to teach me to drive it in the back lot of the dealership so I could get it home. Just up the hill from the dealer I stalled out twice at the stoplight of a five-point intersection, adding cars every second to the horn-honking train lengthening behind me.

Actually, a year earlier my father tried to teach me to drive a stick-shift in the spacious parking lot of Calvary Baptist Church. It was a very short lesson. After about 15 minutes and several whiplashes in his Dodge Colt my Dad said, “You know, they’re making more and more cars with automatic transmission these days.”

That delicate negotiation of the clutch and gas pedal is indeed tricky until you get the hang of it. Managing the brake and clutch with the left foot and the gas pedal with the right foot in that floorboard dance without jerking, stalling out, or grinding the gears is an accomplishment. In time the experienced driver instinctively navigates all three pedals the way a veteran husband learns to watch TV, look at his phone, and pretend to listen to his wife all at the same time. It just takes some practice for it to feel completely natural.

Two Advantages to Five Speeds

There are some advantages to owning a car with a manual transmission.

For example, it’s unlikely that your teenage son or daughter will ask to borrow your car. As the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once said, “You can’t wreck a car you don’t even know how to start.”

Another advantage to owning a car with a stick-shift is that it’s a deterrent to auto theft simply because most car thieves are young amateurs. A 19-year old punk will WANT to steal your Porsche 911 Carrera GTS but when he peers in the window and sees the 7-speed shifter his shoulders will droop and he’ll move onto the 2003 Honda Civic with automatic transmission and a missing hubcap.

Fortunately, because of the American affection for vintage automobiles and classic muscle cars there will always be a remnant of drivers who can and do drive a stick shift.

And perhaps someday there will be a revival of interest in the stick just as there has been a renewed fascination with vinyl albums here in the digital age. On the other hand, if one of my sons asks me to take him to the empty parking lot of a large church and teach him to drive my Mazda 5-speed I’m probably going to say, “You know, they’re making more and more cars with automatic transmission these days.”

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at ramonpresson@gmail.com. To read Presson’s previous columns go to www.franklinhomepage.com/?s=ramon+presson

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